Mine ‘carnage’ worries Susan Shabangu

Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu described the mounting death toll in the country’s lethal mines as “carnage” on Thursday and said there was a link between the pursuit of profits and the body count.

In some of her strongest comments to date on the issue, she also said sky-high gold and platinum prices might be a factor contributing to fatal accidents in South Africa’s mines, which are the deepest and among the most dangerous on the world.

“I want to reiterate that I am still very concerned about the continued carnage in our mines,” she told a Cape Town Press Club function.

She said that up to August 15, 76 South African miners had lost their lives in 2011, compared with 79 in the same period last year.

“My department will continue with its hard stance on these issues. We will not hesitate to stop unsafe mines in order to save the lives of workers who inadvertently fall victim to these lapses,” she said.

More profit, more fatalities
Mine safety is a huge issue in South Africa and unions often accuse management of putting profits ahead of safety. Shabangu said there was evidence this was the case.

“We are seeing a correlation currently between, where there is a high profitability we are seeing a rise in those companies of fatalities,” Shabangu said.

“It is clear where there is more profit there is an increase in fatalities, so that’s the challenge we are looking at. Maybe the high commodity prices [for gold and platinum] do contribute,” she said in response to questions.

The price of gold has surged to record highs, making it more viable to extract the ore from deeper and more dangerous levels. South Africa’s gold mining operations currently reach depths of around 4km.

Most of the country’s main mining houses say safety is a top priority and mining deaths have fallen dramatically over the past couple of decades though the industry’s labour force has also shrunk.

Mechanisation
According to government data, 855 miners were killed in South Africa in 1986 but that number has been falling, hitting 220 in 2007 and 169 in 2009.

But this positive trend has had setbacks and some individual companies like Gold Fields have seen a rise in deaths this year. Thirteen of its workers were killed in the first six months of this year compared to 11 in the same period in 2010.

Mechanisation is seen as one way to reduce fatalities but this is a sensitive issue as the sector is a key source of employment in a country with a jobless rate of over 25%. — Reuters

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Wendell Roelf
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